Have you ever wondered about the history of bikes? You’re not alone. Although nearly every single person in the civilized world is aware of what a bike is, they really haven’t been around all that long in the grand scheme of things.
In fact, the first examples of what we know as bikes today are barely even 200 years old. Humankind existed for centuries without bicycles, a notion that seems a bit odd when you really think about it.
If you're curious about how bikes got to the versions we see on the streets and trails today, you’re in the right place. Below, we’ll take a quick look at how the bicycle has developed over time, including a few different types.
While it would be nice to know who invented the very first bike, and what it was like, we don’t really have a proven historical fact to go off of.
According to some, the first bike existed in sketch form in the early 1500s. This Is attributed to Gian Giacomo Caprotti, although some have insisted it was a purposeful fabrication. Still, there are some academics that believe that Caprotti was the first one to conceive of a bike.
The sketch showed a bike with one tube for the frame, and a fork that gently curved up to become handlebars. The seat was attached to the frame tube, and curved backwards until there was a small flat surface to sit on. A crank and pedal set connected by a chain to the rear wheel.
The early 1800s are when most would agree that the first verified versions of bikes began to appear. A German named Baron Karl von Drais is credited with coming up with the first bike. Originally called a “running machine,” these bikes consisted of two large wheels, connected by a frame that curved in the center to hold a seat.
The “rider” would use their legs to push the bike along the ground, resting their arms on a bar attached to the “frame.” When in use, it looked like the rider was running, letting the bike glide in between long steps.
There was no way to steer with handlebars, so the running machine was steered by leaning.
Shortly after von Drais obtained a patent in 1818, a British man named Dennis Johnson took it upon himself to create an improved version, and dubbed it the “velocipede.” It was basically a more aesthetically-pleasing version of von Drais’ and higher quality as well.
The velocipede caught on fairly quickly, and was very popular in London during the summer of 1819. The city was full of people riding velocipedes, while also quickly wearing out their boots in the process.
Eventually, the city grew tired of all the people riding around on them, and started issuing fines for anyone caught riding on the sidewalk.
Over the next two decades, both the French and Scottish experimented with improvements and additions to the velocipede, eventually adding petals to the front to give riders a way to actually propel the bike.
Plenty of debate exists over who invented what and when. The only verifiable patent was to an unnamed French metal worker, who affixed pedals and a crank to the larger front wheel of the bike.
By the late 1860s, the new and improved velocipedes were really catching on all over Europe, as more people began to grow accustomed to the new, primitive transportation.
A French blacksmith named Pierre Michaux began to manufacture his own velocipedes on a smaller scale, and later partnered with the Olivers, two wealthy brothers who helped him start a company named Michaux et Cie.
Soon, other blacksmiths caught on, and began forming their own bike companies. Most of the velocipedes around this time were made from a combination of wood and metal.
Before long, multiple versions of the velocipede were popping up across Europe, and even making their way over to Canada and the United States. Some towns even opened up “rinks” for people to ride the bikes on, as there was a lack of paved surfaces in some areas.
As time when on, some changes ended up occurring in the velocipedes. While the earliest versions had wheels of the same size, manufacturers started to make bikes that had huge front wheels, and a much smaller wheel in the back. These were called high wheel bikes, sometimes referred to as “penny farthings.”
The front wheel diameter could often reach as big as 60 inches. The rider would mount the seat, and then push off steering with eht front wheel and pedaling at the same time.
These bikes became very popular, and took quite a bit of skill to ride. Rubber tires and improved drivetrain components mde the high wheels higher quality a few years later. Still, they were pretty dangerous if you fell or wrecked, so mostly young, adventurous men took to riding them.
The 1890s brought a significant change in the bicycle design, forever altering their engineering into a similar version of what we have today.
The high wheel bicycles at the time were hard to ride, and too dangerous for the average person to ride on a regular basis. The large front wheel design and height of the seat were the main issues, so a man named John Kemp Starley designed the “Rover,” a steerable bike with equally-sized wheels.
The drivetrain was different as well. Instead of the front pedal design common on high wheels, the Rover had a chain that went to the wheel at the rear.
The Rover was widely imitated almost immediately, and became very popular by 1890.the fact that it was much easier to steer, smoother on the road, and much safer to ride all contributed to a second bike craze, as more people were able to access safety bikes, and ride them easier.
Around the same time, an inventor named Isaac R. Johnson invented a folding bike frame design It utilizes the diamond frame shape that is used by most mountain and road bikes currently.
This new and improved bike design set off a new surge in popularity in Europe and the United States, especially among the middle and high classes. Bike clubs began to spring up, and the Industrial Revolution allowed bike manufacturers to mass produce the bikes at a lower price.
Bicycles also became a symbol of the feminist movement, as women like Susan B. Anthony praised the mobility and freedom that these new bikes offered women at the time.
The early 1900s saw a sustained market for the popularity of bicycles, as the designs slowly continued to improve, while being even more accessible and affordable. By the 1920s however, bikes were on the decline in the U.S., while they continued to be popular in Europe.
By the 1940s, bikes in America were mostly for kids. During this time, several new innovations were being implemented into adult bikes, including the first derailleur. The earliest version f multi-speed bikes could only accommodate two speeds.
Some bikes even required the rider to stop, remove the rear wheel, and turn it around so the smaller cassette size could be affixed to the chain.
Shortly after, a shifter was invented that could move the derailleur to move the chain onto the different-sized cassettes. These became similar to the multi-speed shifters we use today.
By the early 1950s, bikes in the U.S. were at an all-time low in terms of usage, even while they remained popular in Europe. That all changed when cruiser style bikes started to become popular in the late 1950s.
Cruisers were created to offer maximum comfort, and were mainly intended for recreation and leisure. These bikes had larger tires, bells, speedometers, plush seats, and curved handlebars that offered a more relaxed position.
Cruisers started to pick up in beach communities, especially on the west coast. They slowly became more popular across the United States, with kids and adults alike. Cruisers are still popular today, and haven’t really changed all that much.
Racer bikes were already popular in Europe for decades prior, but started to grow in popularity in the States as adults ought out a more “serious” bike that could handle longer rides and faster speeds.
These were referred to as “racers,” and are similar to many road bikes you see now. The racers of old were much lighter than other bikes at the time, had skinnier tires, multiple gears, kickstands, reflectors, hand brakes, and even accessories like headlights and bike pumps that were attached.
By the late 1950s, Schwinn had begun manufacturing racers in the U.S., and made them widely available in the popular Sears Roebucks catalog. By the early 1960s, Americans were becoming more conscious about health and the environment, leading to a modern explosion of bike popularity that hasn’t slowed down since.
Small improvements started to occur each year with new bike model designs, and new companies started to spring up as well. This led to the creation of three distinct bike types: BMX, road, and mountain.
BMX bikes originated in California around the early 1970s. Riders were modifying road bikes to be used on dirt curses. These were mostly inspired by motocross, and later made popular by the Schwinn Sting Ray. BMX style bikes eventually became a hit for small children, as they were easier to ride than other styles, and could handle off road paths.
Aside from a few small tweaks, BMX bikes have largely remained the same since their introduction.
Road bikes have a design that harkens back to some of the earliest bikes, and are more or less an evolution of the racer bikes that were originally popular in Europe.
The earliest road bikes were much heavier, and had only a few gears. As time has gone on, they have been refined in nearly every way, and are now the most technologically-advanced bikes in terms of geometry, design, and components.
Like BMX bikes, mountain bikes are the result of improvising with other bike styles in order to make them more suitable for off-road riding. This can be traced back to the 1940s, when Europeans modified racer bikes for riding on non-pavement paths, and referred to it as “cyclocross.”
During the 1970s and 80s, a few people in Colorado and California began to modify cruisers and racers for riding ski paths during the offseason. Eventually, this turned into the actual manufacturing of specially-designed bikes made for use on mountains, and other off-road paths.
These bikes featured sturdier frames, wider tires with large knobs for increased traction, an upright seating position, and eventually suspension forks. Rear suspension came a short time later. Gary Fisher and Specialized were among the first to manufacture quality mountain bikes that could hold up to the rigor of off-road riding.
By the early 2000s, mountain bikes had overtaken all other bikes in the U.S. in terms of popularity and sales.
As you can see, bikes have gone through quite a few changes in a short amount of time. What were once heavy, bulky, uncomfortable, and inefficient bikes have now morphed into multiple uses and applications, allowing people all over the world to commute, enjoy the outdoors, and exercise.
Although it’s safe to say that all of the biggest breakthroughs in bike design and technology have likely come to pass, that doesn’t mean that the next improvement isn’t right around the corner.
Bike technology and design continue to push forward, resulting in an ever-evolving climate that produced new innovations and inventions on a yearly basis, to the benefit of us all.
After this brief history lesson, you can take our bike quiz to find out which bike matches your needs.
This post was last updated on November 8th, 2017 at 08:44 am
Over the last few years, I’ve taken my love of the outdoors, hiking, skiing, trekking and exploring to the next level by starting this site. I started a bike shop in Denver, CO, and have seen amazing growth over the last few years. Getting paid to do what I love has been a dream come true for me. That’s also what led me to start BikesReviewed.com. In my shop, I spend a large amount of time helping people find the perfect bike for them and the style of biking they’re going to be doing. It only made sense that I expanded my reach and got online, making it possible for me to help people all over the world. If biking and staying fit is your priority, too, you’ve come to the right place.
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